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Soil, Soul, Society | A poem by Paul Heaney

Soil held in hands

Poet Paul Heaney explores the triad of soil, soul and society, examining the complex systems of exchange taking place below our very feet. In our current age, the harmony between the natural world and humanity is more important than ever. Heaney draws our attention away from the importance of power within our human society and presents nature as the true power over Earth. This great power is born from the soil. If we continue to neglect the soil, we only hinder our society. Heaney shows it is now more important than ever for society to respect the soil, again establishing our role in the systems of nature, rather than alienating ourselves from the natural orders.

Without soil, genesis of soul and society is impossible, yet we often overlook how crucial soil truly is to the diverse and beautiful life on our planet. Schumacher College is offering an online course that explores the themes raised in this poem. Hosted by our co-founder Satish Kumar and June Mitchell, ‘Soil, Soul, Society’ provides the tools to care for soil, the self, and a harmonious relationship with society. Book your place via this link.

Soil, Soul, Society


What is soil?

What is soul?

What is society?

Soiling the soul with the mark of society

This is a good thing

Soil is the Nature of what we are at the level of Earth

It is our reminder of our connection to Nature

It is the thing from which we are born 

And return to

It is the reminder that we are very much part of Nature

Not apart from it

It is that which keeps us alive

Keeps us healthy

It is the ever evolving process 

Of the cycle of life

It is richness itself

It is both dormant with potential

And teaming with life

It represents and is the very diversity

That keeps us salubrious with the salt of life

The salt of the good earth 

Without its rich mix

Of organisms that break down the dead

That reform to make new life

Without its complex tapestry of life

There can be no health without this wealth

The ever clean hands are not the healthiest hands while on and of the Earth

So why on earth are we obsessed with hygiene?

No extreme is healthy

It is a false sense of wellbeing

That disconnects us from the earth

No, it is the soiling that keeps us healthy

The immersion with earth and all its diversity

This is the key to life

To a long and healthy life at that

So from time to time

Immerse your hands 

In the great wealth of life

Get your hands dirty 

Touch hold grasp dig

Bury your hands deep

In the great richness of the blessed soil

For you will grow to love the soil

Over time

And with more time

You will learn to love it all the more

You will benefit all the more

Love it

For its life giving properties

For it is the very propagation of life

No nation is built without it

No society can survive without it

Let alone thrive without it

And what of soul

That elusive thing that is no thing

That cannot be touched or counted 

Seen or heard

Nor sensed by the usual senses

Yet the soul can be sensed and discerned

It is that which animates the inanimate

That lifts a body to rise to great heights

Gives fleet to the feet to run 

The greatest distance run

To break records in time and length

It is that which catches the breath

And at length

It is the experienced soul 

The soiled soul

That is the great measure of a life 

Both in years

And in the quality of a life led

Led by the courage a soul shows

Through its actions

Through its engagement with life

For unhampered

And unhindered

The soul will rise to heights unheard of

For it is the fire at the heart of a life

And all life

That burns with the brightest intensity

Yet without density

And so what is society?

What is the worth of society 

Without a soul and soil?

Without its connection and natural foundation?

Without its many souls that make it up?

For no society exists without those souls

It cannot survive long without that which is natural to it

That flows in and out of it

That feeds it from the very source of life itself

A society that thinks it is above Nature

Is a society divorced from itself

Unaware of itself

Is lost in itself

Such a society needs to rediscover itself

Or else it dies

A society is by its nature sociable 

Without such social connections 

It becomes insular

And sick

Cut off from the arterial flow of life

Forgetting it's own true origins

The healthiest societies

Know their true nature

Know that which sustains them 

Know on what they are built

And it is the soul that feeds the soil

With love care and attention 

These are the great qualities of a nation

It is the soul in the soil that feeds the society

And it is society that feeds the soul

And so the loop is complete

One without the other is incomplete

And so we have to ask

What does it profit a man and woman

If the soul is not touched by the soil

By the very substance that would feed the soul?

What does it profit a woman and a man

If the very society one is measured and grows by

Is not founded on the soil of the earth?

That which truly supports us

If the very foundation of our society

Is not built on that which sustains us

If we lose touch with that from whence we were born

If we forget that from which we are made

And what does it profit a man and woman

If our finest creation

Our society of sisterhood and brethren

Then becomes soulless burden?

A life or a society without soul

Is as good as dead

In the end

As it is in the beginning

All life starts with soul

All souls need the soil of life's experience to grow by

All societies need to remember their roots and that which sustains them

And the good earth needs the caring hand of man and woman

To bridge heaven and earth

For woman and man is that bridge

Ours is to create a heaven on earth 

So to sew the seeds of life

To recreate

As above

So below

And in so doing

The perfect balance is struck 




Let these be the unified object of our goal

For these surely are the principles to all our lives

Representing the greatest dynamic in sobriety





Writer and artist, Paul Heaney is the founder of Ark Foundation, dedicated to finding natural and harmless solutions to the planet’s most pressing needs. In both his art and philosophy, Heaney conveys the importance of humanity’s interrelationship with the natural world.

Our online course with Satish Kumar exploring the themes of this piece takes place in March 2021. Book your place via this link